Thursday, March 20, 2008

The one where I try to pack in way too much

(Part of my series of posts about the workshops I led at the CNU Writers Conference this past weekend)

What was I thinking, trying to cover both genre and voice in one workshop session? Let me try to explain...

I began with an overview of age genres for the children's/YA field, giving a brief summary of each category: Early Childhood, Middle Grade, and Young Adult. I read from two examples in each category (list posted here), hoping to show how the voice chosen matched the intended audience. (I love reading out loud from fellow authors' books. Must be the drama geek in me, but making that connection with an audience is so much fun, and "selling" beloved books to them is even more so.) I also jazzed up this portion of the workshop with audio clips of music for each age genre, and funny pictures of me from each stage. So far, so good.

Now the transition to that elusive creature, Voice. No matter if you are writing a picture book, a middle grade novel, or a young adult book, voice is the natural expression of you, the writer, talking about something that is never trivial, never easy, and is slippery to define: Truth. But what is that? To get a start on it, I took my favorite quote and broke it down:

"Truth," says Parker Palmer, "is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline."

Eternal: Voices in books live on. They connect to one another throughout the years. You can converse with someone from hundreds of years ago, taking themes from great writers like Shakespeare (The Wednesday Wars), Emily Dickinson (Feathers), or Homer (Leepike Ridge.)

Conversation: Voice leaves room for the reader. When you read A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes, for example, the child (and the adult) immediately wants to participate in the conversation. What else is a pocket? Why? What makes something suitable for holding something else? This is a book that doesn't end when the last page is turned. It invites the readers into the conversation.

Things that Matter: To discover what mattered to my workshop participants, I had them do the 100 questions exercise, which I blogged about here. My feeling was that you raise your hand and dare to speak because the question matters to you; therefore, the secret to knowing what you should write about (and your voice) is finding out what those questions are. This is an exercise that anyone can do at home, and works better if you have more time than I did at the workshop!

Passion: You would think that if you were talking about things that matter to you, that passion would be natural. But sometimes, we get too choked up to speak. But it's important to observe the other passions in your life and see how you behave there---do you quilt? Fix cars? Climb mountains? Be as enthusiastic about your writing.

Here's the quote I used: "I once met a man who told me that I always had an exaggerated idea of things. He said, 'Look at me, I am never excited.' I looked at him and he was not exciting. For once I did not over-appreciate." ---Robert Henri, painter (That got a good laugh, and deservedly so. If the speaker (writer) is not passionate or enthusiastic, then why should the reader be?)

Discipline: Each genre requires a different discipline. (Fitting a story to the 32 page picture book format, for instance.) Projecting and maintaining your voice also takes discipline. But I prefer to redefine discipline as "serving the work" as Madeleine L'Engle does so brilliantly with her quote: "To serve a work of art, great or small, is to die, to die to self." (The extended quote is here.) I did mention that serving the work is difficult, because you're not always sure what it wants. Wouldn't some direct orders be nice? One suggestion I offered was to make a mechanical drawing of your story idea, or of the dilemma you were wrestling with. I did this with my frustration over not knowing how to transition from short story writing to novel writing, as shown below. (You can click on it to make it easier to see.)

Then, I shared some of the stories about genre/voice hunting that many of you left in the comments to this post. The workshop participants really seemed to like these stories from the trenches!

Finally, I wrapped up the workshop by reading several poems from the Cybils Poetry winner, Joyce Sidman's This is Just to Say. I used it as an example of a book that exemplifies the Parker Palmer quote. It was part of the Eternal Conversation (William Carlos Williams' original poem was the starting point, and it definitely invited readers into that conversation.) It was about Things that Matter (apology and forgiveness.) It had Passion (all those messy emotions) and Discipline (beautiful format, plus the author absolutely served the work by maintaining the integrity of the fictional young voices who wrote the poems, instead of making them all in her adult voice.)

So, maybe too much for one workshop? Yes, probably. I didn't get around to leading one of the writing exercises (making that mechanical drawing that I mentioned.) But I hope the participating writers left with the idea that picking a genre and finding your voice is an ongoing process, one that isn't simple, but is always, always worth pursuing. Because, to paraphrase Parker Palmer,

WRITING is an eternal conversation, about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.


  1. Oh, but what a worthwhile 'too much' this is! What a hoot that whole day must have been. And I LOVE the This Is Just to Say book for kids -- adding that to yet another one that I WANT -- because I love the original poem so much. What fun to really talk forgiveness and apology with kids. What a way to begin them on the 'eternal conversation.' Very cool.

  2. Thanks for sharing all this, and for making the workshop stuff available online. I am so impressed!

  3. A kick-ass presentation - and some KICK-ASS shoes (those high heels you're wearing in the second to last slide)

    And thanks again for your support of my work, Sara.

  4. Thanks, all. Glad to know posting all this, and rehashing it is worthwhile.

    Barbara, I LOVED reading aloud from How to Steal a Dog. Such a natural, compelling voice you have in that opening scene...

    And I should have taken a picture of the shoes I was wearing during the presentation...I get compliments on them in elevators. Really. :)


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